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Archive for January, 2010

November

November (1969)
by Georges Simenon, translated by Jean Stewart
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
185 pages

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“Walking the streets, I have always been impressed by the thought that everybody one sees is the center of his own universe, and that his preoccupations loom larger than what is happening in the world around.” (pg 68)

In a house on the outskirts of Paris, a 21-year-old woman, the narrator, lives with her father, mother, and brother.  The mother has psychological problems and is an alcoholic who goes on a bender and then a self-imposed drying-out almost on schedule.  The father started in the military, but now has an office job handling paperwork in the secret service. The brother is two years younger than the sister and still a student, while the narrator herself, Laure, is a lab assistant in a Paris hospital.

The conflict occurs on two fronts – at home the family has employed a Spanish maid, and though the narrator’s brother has started up an affair with her, the father also begins to desire the maid, seeing her in hotel rooms on her days off.  This creates tension with all the rest of the people in the household, except for the maid herself, who lives in her own carefree bubble in the otherwise tense and gloomy home. At work, Laure has started up an affair with the much older professor overseeing her section, a relationship she seems to prefer over seeing someone her own age with whom she may have a future.

There is a small mystery tacked on near the end of the novel, when the maid disappears and the reader is left to wonder at several different things that may have become of her.  But the main emphasis is on the psychological pressures everyone is under, the way that “family life is not what we are given to believe” (pg.116), and the isolation that can occur even between people that interact face-to-face every day.

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The End of the Affair (1951)
by Graham Greene
Penguin Books
187 pages

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The world of Graham Greene, to me, is one where everything is bathed in a slightly sickly green shade of light. A piece of your clothing has had a bit of vomit merely brushed off with a few sweeps of the hand, and wherever you step your shoes sink into the mud until the cold water seeps in and starts to wet the bottoms of your socks.

In this, one his most famous novels, Greene used one of his own affairs as the raw material to write a novel that probes love, hate, and the presence (or lack thereof) of God in each of our lives.

(more…)

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The Book of the Mind: Key Writings on the Mind from Plato and the Buddha through Shakespeare, Descartes, and Freud to the Latest Discoveries of Neuroscience (2003)
edited by Stephen Wilson
Bloomsbury
432 pages

I think I got a bit hoodwinked by the cover on this one.  It looks really nice with the green background and hand-drawn people, and the subtitle makes it sound like it’s much more appealing to a mainstream audience than it really is.  Though there are samples of writings from all the names mentioned in the title, the vast majority of excerpts are taken from dry academic works by scientists you’ve never heard of.

Most of the excerpts are quite short, about a page or two, so I didn’t feel like there enough space allotted to follow the thought process of any author, and instead you were just lucky if you got a hint of what they were talking about. I picked this book up mostly because I thought it would be the sort of thing that would be full of ideas that make you think and wonder – but it wasn’t anything like that at all.

The book is divided into six main sections: Perception, Memory, Emotion, Thought, Consciousness, and Self.

I think someone who is deeply interested in psychology and psychiatry at an academic level might enjoy this, though the very short excerpts may be a problem even for them.

My favourite quote in here is by Gilbert Ryle:‘The mind is its own place and in his inner life each of us lives the life of a ghostly Robinson Crusoe’ (pg.249)

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Parallel Play: Growing Up with Undiagnosed Asperger’s (2009)
by Tim Page
Doubleday
208 pages

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This book should be called Tim Page’s Pretty Great Life.

There’s an assumption with memoirs or biographies, especially ones that refer to a difficult condition in the subtitle, that there will be a significant dosage of mess-ups, misery and misfortune. It was therefore in an odd way depressing to finish reading this autobiography and realize that the author has been quite fortunate, and carved out a decent life for himself.

Page was passionate about classical and opera music at an early age.

Page grew up in a family which was supportive financially, emotionally, and socially.  He was immersed in excellent music, literature, and other rich cultural products at an early age, and was already successful enough as a child to be covered by Time magazine (though he ended up being edited out of the published feature).  As a young man he encountered mentors that aided in his development, and he quickly found a niche in which he could make a living (and eventually earn a Pulitzer prize for his writing on classical music).  Not only has not everyone been so fortunate, but I think it can be easily said that Page’s life has been made much easier by privileges not extended to the majority of humanity.

Of course there are some darker moments here too.  Use and abuse of drugs in his teen years. Appearing to be a genius to most people, yet being so disinterested in High School that he flunked many courses and eventually dropped out. A passenger in the crash of an overloaded pickup truck of teenagers on a weekend binge that resulted in several deaths. And the endless social awkwardness and difficulty in connecting with other people that comes as a part of Asperger’s syndrome, which he was diagnosed with in his forties.

If the above sounds like a slam, this is actually one of the best books that I’ve read in quite a while, and I have a hard time imagining that there will be many other books published that can compete with this one in evoking the essential spirit of growing up in the second half of the twentieth century.  Though I’m much younger than the author, I think he captured something essential about trying to survive and find yourself in a world both so permissive and so difficult and hostile.  I like how he appreciated both classical and rock music in a similar way, on its own merits.

Some people might protest that there’s not enough personal material here, such as information on interactions with his siblings, or the women in his life, or his children, but somehow I don’t think that being exhaustive is a necessary element for an autobiography.  Bob Dylan’s autobiography similarly left unmentioned much of his personal life, but sometimes those things just aren’t what the author wants to talk about. This book doesn’t scale incredible artistic highs, or take a steely look at things from every angle, but if you take it for what it is–in the same way it’s best to take people–it’s a great and inspiring read.

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Civil War Stories
by Ambrose Bierce
Dover Thrift Editions
128 pages

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Ambrose Bierce was a young man during the American Civil War, and enlisted in fighting for the Federal forces, with whom he participated in many bloody battles.  These experiences likely went a large way to forming the cynical and jaded views he carried through the rest of his life, and he came to be known by the nickname ‘Bitter Bierce’.

The 16 stories in this collection are mostly of the sort that occupy a middle ground between truth and fiction – they’re based on the author’s first-hand experience, but shaped and fleshed-out to fit the needs and duties of art.

Thoughts on some of the stories: “What I saw at Shiloh” begins the collection off with a very vivid description of troops maneuvering and engaging the enemy on the battlefield.  “Four Days in Dixie” follows the story of some northern soldiers who sneak over to the other side to spy, and then have trouble making their way back.  “A Horseman in the Sky” not only contains the vivid imagery of the title, but introduces a theme that gets repeated in many of the other stories, where a soldier finds himself fighting and killing his closest relatives.  The famous “An Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge” is here too, which touches on the slightly fantastic, a world that Bierce would explore in some of his stories collected elsewhere. The last story, “The Mocking-bird”, ends things off with some very poetic imagery of dreams and nature.

Ambrose Bierce, born 1842, disappeared in Mexico in 1914

Bierce is an excellent prose writer, bringing the reader into the story by relating things in a matter-of-fact tone. The main weakness of this collection is that some of the plots and events do repeat themselves from story to story.  Also, occasionally I felt hindered by my lack of knowledge of both Civil War history and military terminology.  On the whole, I think I prefer Bierce’s supernatural stories.

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Darwinia (1998)
by Robert Charles Wilson
320 pages
Orb Books

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It’s the start of the twentieth century, the age of large ocean-crossing ships and the telegraph, when an event occurs that shakes everyone’s understanding of reality, and radically transforms the course of history from the path it followed in our world.  Overnight a light is seen in the sky, communication is cut off from Europe, and then when people finally investigate in-person, they find that all of Europe has been replaced with an untouched wilderness with bizarre alien plant and animal life, and the land following only the general lines of what had existed before.

So far we have an excellent adventure story, as the main protagonist is a child when this happens, and in his twenties is part of an expedition that tries to explore and document the interior of the new Europe for the first time. Exiles and adventurers have tried to reclaim parts of the wilderness, either for their vanished nations or their own self-interest, and so the expedition has to deal with social and political hurdles as well as the bizarre new lifeforms.  The informal name for this transformed Europe becomes ‘Darwinia’, a mocking reference, since events have obviously invalidated the slow-and-steady evolution theories of Darwin.

This had the potential to be an engaging novel full of adventure and mysteries, but unfortunately, about a third of the way through, there are several pages of flat exposition in which the author clues you in on what is really going on, and the twist in the plot is both unnecessary and extremely damaging to the drama of the story.  From this point forward, nothing that happens really matters, and things start to get more bizarre, but it doesn’t mean anything to the reader because we’re in a world without rules.  If Wilson was trying to make some kind of sense with what is going on with plot twist, he fell well short.

Without giving too much away, the story falls into a similar trap as many stories set in dreams or computer simulations–because anything can happen, to the reader it doesn’t matter what happens. If an author creates a world like Middle Earth, and lets the reader know of the rules and limitations, then it can be a stage for effective drama, even if it’s a very different kind than takes place in our world.  However, in a story like Tad Williams’s Otherland, which was mostly set in a computer gone mad, it’s as possible for all the characters to be killed off in a page, as for them to pull something out of a pocket and be victorious, or for the narrative to go on for another thousand pages.

This novel won an Aurora award in 1999.

The full cover art by Jim Burns, the best part of the book.

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The Prisoner: Shattered Visage (1990)
written by Dean Motter and Mark Askwith, illustrated by Dean Motter
DC Comics
208 pages

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After watching the dire AMC-TV remake (or re-imagining, or brutalizing, or whatever) of the classic late-60s British television series The Prisoner, I learned about this comic, which was originally published in four volumes, and picks up the story of the original series twenty years later.  The two Canadian writers apparently had the input and approval of creator and lead actor Patrick McGoohan, though I’m not sure if their contribution is considered canon.

Number Six, twenty years later

The story is mostly involved with the lives of various contemporary spies and intelligence workers in London, England, and only about a third of it takes place in The Village, now abandoned and almost devoid of inhabitants.  This becomes one of the weaknesses of the story, as the scenes in the everyday world are quite mundane and differ little from a thousand other mediocre spy stories.  The hero of the original series, Number Six, does make an appearance, as does one of his Number Two antagonists, but the main characters are younger agents newly created by the authors.

The ultimate meaning of the original series, regarded by many critics as one of the high points of artistic achievement in television, is hotly debated.  The audience appeal of the episodes ranged from the fairly standard cat-and-mouse game of a secret agent trying to outwit his antagonist, to the final episode that took a severe turn into surrealism, breaking down the narrative structure of the series, and an ending that was somehow both heavy-handed and impenetrably ambiguous all at once.  But, for me, the overarching theme of the work was the struggle of the individual against totalitarian structures, and the maintenence of internal integrity in the face of whatever one may be subjected to. Man against mass society.

Simpsons episode The Computer Wore Menace Shoes, in which we learn Number Six was made to disappear after inventing the bottomless peanut bag.

Unfortunately, none of this is really brought up in this comic book, which deals with more mundane events and concerns, as well as providing an ending that seems rushed. The strongest connection to the spirit of the series is the quoting of some of the phrases that were used in The Village, but it never feels like the authors have a full grasp of the material.  As for the artwork, it’s decent, though sometimes a bit too dark and murky.

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